Independent filmmaker James Rolfe, better known by his Internet alias the Angry Video Game Nerd, takes nerdiness to new heights in his annual YouTube holiday special.
Rolfe’s Nerd character is one of the original YouTube pioneers, having first uploaded videos to the social media network in 2007. Since then, Rolfe and various collaborators have produced over 130 Nerd episodes and even a movie that was in funded, in part, by donations from fans.
Clothed in a trademark white collared shirt with a few pens in the pocket, and frequently chugging Rolling Rock beer, the Nerd reviews bad video games in caustic, profanity-laced rants.
To get a better idea of his mission, listen to his theme song. If you prefer solo piano, classical, or techno music, don’t worry — fans have also produced versions of the tune in those genres. There’s even an 8-bit version that will take you right to the good old days of Super Mario Bros (a classic game which never gets a Nerd review, because everyone can agree that it’s a good game, and thus not worthy of his rage).
The Nerd focuses his attention on games that, simply put, suck. A lot of the humor of the series comes from his intense reactions to videos games released in the 1980s and 90s that probably never even received that much attention in the first place.
He started out reviewing Nintendo games — hence, his original moniker as the Angry Nintendo Nerd — then shifted his attention to games released on other consoles, including Atari, Sega, and occasionally the Nintendo 64.
“This game sucks,” he states bluntly in the very first words of his very first episode, a review of “Castlevania 2,” a game released in 1988. His insults would only become more creative — not to mention scatological — after that.
The popularity behind the Nerd
Part of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s popularity can be explained by nostalgia. Those who grew up in the 80s and 90s can remember a time when there was no Internet, and the only way to tell if a video game was any good was to actually play it, or to subscribe to “Nintendo Power” magazine. A typical weekend would revolve around renting a game from the local 7-Eleven (and as the Nerd bitterly points out, if you were a kid who rented a crappy game, then the rest of your weekend was ruined).
Some of Rolfe’s reviews have focused on classic games like “Legend of Zelda.” But by far, most of them are about games that are total garbage. Even those who aren’t video game freaks may find their jaws dropping at just how bad some of these games are when it comes to playability.
At this point, the Nerd has played so many terrible games he’s been able to compile some of the biggest stinkers into clip collections. As he points out, some of the biggest problems with these old-school video games range from shitty graphics (“Don’t you wish there could be a more appealing texture and hue than this diarrhea-ish brown?” he sneers while playing a Little Red Riding Hood game) and long passwords (“Is there ANY reason these passwords have to be so f***ing long?”). He also has a grudge against video games inspired by movies that ignore their source material (“Remember when Rambo had to fight a giant spider? I don’t,” he says darkly. He also points out that one Nintendo Star Wars game has Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader as the first boss, and that Darth Vader subsequently turns into a scorpion).
Rolfe’s videos are definitely an acquired taste, and he has admitted that many fans are hardcore gamers, although Rolfe does not consider himself to be one. For those who didn’t grow up playing video games, it might be hard to see what the big deal is when it comes to the Nerd videos, which regularly rack up between one to three millions views each time a new one is released (these aren’t huge numbers, but they’re certainly indication of a pretty dedicated fanbase).
However, for those who remember growing up in the 8-bit game era, the Nerd’s freakouts over his inability to land the plane in “Top Gun,” or to even get to the next level in “Dick Tracy” are resonant of every gamer’s struggle against badly designed games.
He struggles to get his ninja turtle to complete what looks like a simple jump. He plays a Superman Nintendo 64 game, and is dismayed to see that most of the game consists of flying Superman through endless sets of rings.
The Nerd’s reactions to these video game travesties consist of profane, juvenile, over-the-top fits of rage. But that’s all of the part of the fun. And as Rolfe himself has pointed out, the character he portrays in the web series is very different from the filmmaker himself.
Behind the Nerd
In real life, Rolfe appears to be a mild-mannered film buff. He’s married, lives in Pennsylvania, and has a two-year-old daughter.
His personality emerges in various behind-the-scenes videos uploaded to the Nerd video channel. He explains that he sees much of the humor of the Nerd character as coming from that character’s overreaction to flawed details in video games.
He has long stated that his lifelong dream was directing a movie, which finally happened when he independently produced and directed “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie.” The film never received a wide release, but was screened in several theaters across the US in 2013, and appears to been greeted with lots of enthusiasm from fans.
Aside from the Nerd franchise, Rolfe and collaborators also release other video series on their YouTube platform, which they’ve dubbed Cinemassacre. These include a series reviewing board games, reviews of classic horror films (typically released every year around Halloween), and live streams of players trying to beat different video games (thankfully, these games aren’t as tedious or as god-awful as the ones played by the Nerd).
Some of the more complex Nerd episodes show Rolfe’s skill as a filmmaker. He’s no Steve Spielberg, but nor he is a run-of-the-mill amateur YouTuber. His writing is sharp, his editing well-paced, and the special effects — while obviously zero-budget and deliberately cheesy — are, well, effective. Rolfe himself has admitted that his favored tool for Nerd special effects — ranging from explosions to epic battles — is Adobe Photoshop. While the Angry Video Game Nerd film gave him a chance to experiment with more complex special efforts, including the use of miniature models and green screens, by far most of the Nerd web episodes are produced in Rolfe’s Pennsylvania home with support from friends and family.
Rolfe has also appeared in other web series, and made cameos in a few independent, low-budget films. But in many ways, the Nerd character remains the bread and butter of his business. While one would assume there are only so many shitty video games out there deserving a review, so far Rolfe and company keep finding ways to put a new spin on the series. The gist of his latest Nerd holiday special is just the most recent example of this.
These holiday specials have become one of the Nerd’s many trademarks, although they aren’t titled as such (the Nerd himself has called them “sacrilegious Christmas f***fests.” In the Nerd’s early era, the holiday episodes involved the Nerd putting on a Santa Claus hat and reviewing some memorably awful Bible-themed games. This included one game in which, playing as Noah, the object of the game is to run around shooting goats with a slingshot.
“According to the Bible, Noah puts two of each animal in the Ark, right?” the Nerd ponders. “Well, according to this game, he put a whole bunch of goats on there.”
In 2008, Rolfe riffed off Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and had the Nerd meet the ghost of Christmas past, present, and future. Along the way, he reviewed video game classics like “Home Alone 2” (“nothing in the game really makes sense,” he moans), and “Shaq Fu” (where you play as Shaquille O’Neil fighting against “a goblin sort of thing, some crazy cat bitch, a Persian prince, all kinds of weird aliens and a mummy warrior”).
Other holiday specials profiled “Winter Games,” a Nintendo game that at the time Rolfe said had “the worst video game controls” in any game he’d ever played, as well as various games that he reviewed in a parody of popular holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas.” Sample verse, describing a skating video game as: “skating may be the best part / but it’s still just as delightfully tart / as a broccoli-bean-burrito-eating skunk that’s ready to fart.”
Last year, Rolfe unveiled a new spin on his holiday special, releasing 12 shorter game videos in a reference to the 12 days of Christmas. Given that other Nerd videos usually range between 10 to 20 minutes, this massive release of three-to-four minute videos wasn’t something that fans had seen before. The reviews tackled classic stink bombs like “Alf,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Ren & Stimpy,” and even a Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen game (hey, it was the 90s — those girls were huge. Of course they got their own video game).
This year, Rolfe’s holiday special takes a similar approach. In a riff off the Advent calendar, the Nerd is set to release a new video every day between December 1 to Christmas Eve. However, each review will focus on something the Nerd has never ranted about before: craptastic video game art.
The videos are short, and only a few have been released so far, but it turns out there’s a lot of comedic gold in over-analyzing video game cover art. Once you actually take a really good look at them, the only response in one of the Nerd’s best known catchphrases: “What were they thinking?”
Megaman was one of the most popular video game characters of the early 1990s, and the franchise is still going strong today. But, as the Nerd points out, a lot of the early Megaman Nintendo games fell victim to some truly terrible cover art.
Part of the video’s humor comes from Rolfe’s satirization of a high-brow art critic. Instead of the usual guitar-based Nerd theme song at the beginning of the video, there’s classical music, and the video game covers examined by the Nerd are encased in gold frames. It’s all very fancy, except for the fact that Rolfe’s character is scrutinizing video game cover art.
And scrutinize he sure does. No detail of the cheesy Megaman covers escapes the Nerd’s withering glare. “Megaman has no neck!” he complains, examining one cover. “And is wearing shoulder pads as if to deliberately hide his head like a turtle. He’s cowardly shrinking into his own suit!”
He also rips the cover apart for showing Megaman holding a gun, when every 90s-video-game-loving kid knows that Megaman sported an arm cannon.
There are also more salacious details that he picks up on. On the cover of Megaman 2, it looks like there are two characters giving each other lapdances, the Nerd points out. And you know what? Once you really look at it, it kind of does. Meanwhile, the European release of Megaman shows the character sporting “some kind of vaginal ultrasound thing” instead of an arm cannon.
“In Megaman 3, he’s blasting a robot right in the crotch!” the Nerd laments while examining another video game cover. “Look at him. He’s smiling and looking right at the crotch, like he knows what he’s doing.”
Rolfe has also promised to release a regular Angry Video Game Nerd review before the end of the year, but until then, fans will get a chance to snicker their way through 24 mocking reviews of the very best of bad video game art. There are other YouTube personalities who, like the Nerd, have found hundreds of fans by capitalizing on nostalgia for old, and often crappy, media releases. The most prominent of these is the Nostalgia Critic, who is also releasing his own series of reviews of forgotten holiday specials. Happy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Christmas, anyone?